Sunday, March 30, 2008

Windy meadows to Rainy Pass.

The last two mornings it took an extra moment (after opening my eyes) to get my bearings. Not this morning! If you've ever been through Rainy Pass you'll never forget it, regardless of the time of day or the weather as you went through, even though *both* of those factors will be a big part of your memories of the event. (Every Idita-race veteran is nodding their head vigorously right now...) It's difficult to explain how the moment before my eyes opened I was already wired by the prospect of potentially making it to the pass today. The mountains between here and there were merely a scenically striking bonus to keep me entertained as I wended my way pass-ward.The trail continued as hardpacked as ever and riding was no chore even with my only-slightly-lighter-than-at-the-start steed. Easy travel, a light frame of mind, and even some fun dipsy-doodling on contouring trail near Round Mountain made the morning pass quickly and I found myself rolling across Puntilla Lake around noon.

Sharon and Dick are the caretakers of the Rainy Pass Lodge and although we're really just acquaintances who've met along the trail they seem like lifelong friends. I wouldn't dream of passing through without stopping for a spell. Dick is not to be found but Sharon comes out and shares the highlights of the winter so far. These two live a lifestyle that many would kill to hear firsthand tales of and few could ever commit to, and time passes quickly as she shares some of the latest. It seems that their children have upped the pressure on her and Dick (who are in their 70's although you'd never know it to look at them) to leave this utopia behind and reenter society to be closer to help 'should something go wrong'. I don't even need to ask if the kids that are leading this charge have visited Sharon and Dick out here. If they had they'd be clamoring to move back in with the 'rents instead of trying to force their own fears and anxieties onto two people who've truly found their place in the world. Most of us (raises hand) would give limbs to have the opportunity to live this peacefully and contentedly right up until the moment that we keel over into a drift on our way back from the outhouse.

I leave Sharon's company in an even better headspace and am able to ride the sinuous trail through the foothills north of the lake and out above treeline.Once on top the wind is up and the trail has been alternately drifted over and scoured clean, mandating the first extended Idita-pushing of the trip. Although there is a certain stigma attached to walking with one's bike I'm thrilled to be doing it here, now.
Instead of frustratedly focusing on the gossamer thin line of semi-ridable trail I stroll along effortlessly, keeping my head up and appreciating the austere alpine views, all as my creative subconscious has a field day with the whipped and whirled shapes passing beneath my feet.Abstract, yes?
But a slightly different angle gives perspective to it.
Sastrugified wolf tracks in the foreground, with the trail, a tripod, and the Alaska Range beyond.

High clouds move in and flatten the light, but before long the sun peeks through beneath and the contrast it lends makes for breathtaking scenery and (even with my gutless point and shoot) stunning photography. My soul sings and I can't think of a place I'd rather be.Working up the Happy River Valley toward Kohlsaat Peak.

In every race I've appreciated this place but never fully and I've always cursed myself for rushing through it. Today there is no cursing, merely measured breaths, even footsteps and a constant full-to-the-brim grin on my face. Too many times to count I simply stopped, sat on the top tube of the bike, and gazed at all that surrounded me. I should have adopted this mode of travel years ago...

As the sun dips beyond the range and the cloud pyrotechnics begin, it occurs to me that my mood is certainly influenced by the surrounding landscape but maybe some of it is due to the lack of mental interruption as I travel?Aside from the conversations I had back at Puntilla I've been on my own all day and haven't had to divert my thoughts to focus on another persons' needs. In my everyday world there is a constant stream of visitors, emails, and phone calls to be fielded, leaving little room for proactive thought and even less for introspection. Is it possible that the uninterruptedness of today's train of thought is more responsible for the mood than the scenery?

At the moment I have no answer, but it's a compelling thought to consider as I inch further into the mountains.

I can see a skier catching up as I approach the mouth of Pass Creek. A steady plodding pace finds me just inside the protection of this feature when Rajko the Slovenian Strongman pulls up alongside and accuses me of being an 'animal'. I've got news for you friend--I'm just out for a walk with my bike and besides, you've got a gargantuan pack and a full sled and you just caught me! Raje's English is worlds better than my Slovenian, but it's really what isn't being said that seems important. Night is falling, the wind is gusting, the valley is filling up with cloud, and (so he tells me) there's no trail down the backside of the pass. Despite all of this we chat like childhood chums, laughing over trail anecdotes in the darkness and reluctant to resume travel even though the lack of movement has started us both shivering.

Perhaps it was the day, the mood, the scenery, or some combination of factors I'm too dim to perceive, but Rajko seemed more comfortable and content being 'out here' than just about anyone I've ever met. As he pulls ahead I make a mental note that this is a person that needs to be invited on future 'splorations.

The trail zigzags up the ever-narrowing valley and I can occasionally see Rajko's headlamp as he rounds a corner or searches for a hint of trail. Some time later my peripheral vision picks up a flash up high and it could be that I've seen him atop the pass proper. Walking along my eyes stay fixated on that spot--short-term destination, icon of the route, and potential campsite all rolled into one. My focus is yanked to the inches beneath my feet as I negotiate an open stream. The situation briefly becomes emergent as the drifted bank collapses and blocks the quickly rising water with me stuck in it, but then I spot an alternate exit and splash over to it as the current slowly erodes the increasingly-slushy drift. Glancing again in the direction of the pass I spot lights again but higher than I think they should be, and have to double-take to realize my error. Instead of looking at the low-powered LED's of a Slovenian skier I'm witnessing the early appearance of the aurora only slightly farther away. The display is low in the sky but even what little I can see of it keeps me hyper-motivated as I push the final steep pitch to the top of the pass.

I walk a few steps past the summit while devouring the star-lit view above, below, and beyond, then commence to stomping out a tent platform in the compacted wind slab beneath my feet. An hour later I'm snuggled into a windless perch atop the world with a full belly, dry and happy feet, another ~20 hours worth of hot water and food ready and waiting, and a handlebar-wide grin on my face. Life's pretty good--if you're into this sorta thing...


  1. Excellent posting Mike! You've really captured that awesome feeling of being out in a magical ethereal landscape. Love the photos too. Thanks again for taking us along for ride.

  2. Really enjoying the reports and photos. Thanks for taking the time to put them up.

  3. More! More! More! I'm really enjoying your trip report and the way it sparks fond memories of my past Alaskan trips.

    Somehow the fog of memory has lessened the impact of 20+ hour idita-pushes, interminable slogs up (and down) the Yentna, and -30 bivvies. All that remains is the joy of being out there in the middle of it all.

    Thanks for giving us a window to your adventure.